23 August 2003
The media’s complicity in putting spin on the spin
The media’s response to the ‘revelations’ of the Hutton inquiry reveals more about the nature of corporate journalism than it does about the role of the government’s propagandists. And especially, the back-peddling being performed in an attempt to justify the complicity of the media in not seeing what was patently obvious to anyone who cared to look, namely that the government lies and lies on a consistent basis about its reasons for invading Iraq.
Take the piece in the Independent (23/08/03) headed, “E-mails, memos and misinformation: an unflattering picture of government” by Andrew Grice. Grice starts out by saying that in a previous column he had:
“[L]ikened reporting politics to “observing an iceberg”, saying that political journalists uncover only one eighth of what is happening. The Hutton inquiry made me think I had overstated the media’s ability to ferret out what really is going on behind Whitehall’s closed doors.”
Is Grice trying to say that in the acres of reporting prior to the Hutton inquiry, that the media thought it had actually uncovered the truth? And that only now, we were seeing the ‘real’ story revealed with the comments uncovered such as “the game of chicken” played with the BBC or that Dr Kelly’s questioning by the MoD was “brutal”? Rather than revealing the existence of an iceberg, it seems that the journalists’ job is more akin to skating on thin ice.
And if indeed, as Grice says, political journalists do only uncover the ‘tip of the iceberg’, whose fault is that? Well it’s not the journalist because he says:
“I was assured there was “no witch-hunt” to find the source of the BBC journalist Andrew Gilligan’s report that No 10 had “sexed up” a government’s dossier on Iraqi weapons. Well you could have fooled me.”
Well yes indeed Mr Grice, you were fooled weren’t you (or if you prefer, lied to). And you would still be fooling me unless I brought my own critical abilities to bear on the issue. So having been assured that he wasn’t being fooled, he accepted the denial at face value. Now we can all sleep safely in our beds knowing that Mr Grice has performed his civic duty as a representative of the 4th Estate. How can Grice get away with the obvious contradiction of admitting he has been lied to, and yet never actually use the word lie? Instead, he’s merely been ‘fooled’.
Kicking the ‘spin’ habit?
And even as Grice goes through his own version of spin on the lies told to us to justify the invasion of Iraq he tells us that:
“The irony is that Mr Kelly and his fellow spokesman Godric Smith have tried to help the Government kick [the ‘spin’] habit. That is why, as neutral civil servants, they were brought in to take over the day-to-day briefing of journalists from Mr Campbell.”
So Grice is telling us that now ‘neutral’ civil servants have taken over the role from the professional propagandists, we will be told the truth. This is simply journalistic spin based on the myth of ‘neutral’ civil servants. And what is this assertion based upon? Grice offers not a single piece of evidence in his article to justify this claim other than the assumption, ingrained by the dominant political class over the decades that the civil service sits ‘outside’ the state. Where exactly, we are not told, perhaps on Mount Olympus along with the gods who, looking down, laugh at the affairs of us, mere mortals?
In another story in the same edition by Nigel Morris, the Independent’s political correspondent, we get a little closer to the truth when he tells us that John Scarlett, head of the Joint Intelligence Committee and responsible for the September dossier is, “[O]ne of the…most influential figures in the establishment” My thesaurus defines establishment as ‘old guard’ and ‘conservative’. How, I wonder, does this square with the idea of a ‘neutral’ civil service?
Who is Mr Grice trying to kid? Propaganda is now just ‘spin’, a bad habit acquired by the mandarins of Downing Street, like people hooked on too much sugar in their diets? Yet Grice, later admits that kicking the ‘habit’ maybe impossible:
“But as one No 10 insider told me this week: “We have never managed to live down our reputation for spin. It only takes two or three stories a year to undo all our efforts, and whenever we start to get it right, another one comes along.”
What an admission! Later, Grice says, when talking of a:
“”[N]ew settlement” under which the Government gives up spin and is more honest about admitting its divisions and mistakes…[and in]…return, the media would report politics more seriously” he (Grice) doubts “that [the government] is capable of sticking to such an agreement.””
Note how lies have been transformed into “divisions and mistakes”. and propaganda is now only a “reputation”. for spin. Even as the ‘new settlement’ between the government and the media is broached it is broken. I despair that in order to uncover real events, I have to subject every sentence to dissection as if under a media microscope.
But in spite of Grice’s own journalistic complicity in the process, he is reluctantly forced to admit the lies being told (and told to us since at least September 2002), when he says:
“Then there is the growing list of doubts inside Downing Street about the Government’s case for taking action against Iraq. If the e-mail by Jonathon Powell, saying the draft dossier did not show Iraq was an “imminent threat”, had been leaked at the time, it would have been sensational.”
Firstly, one has to ask the question why it isn’t “sensational” now? After all, a lie is lie regardless of when it’s revealed. Secondly, how does this “sensational” disclosure square with Grice’s comment about how it reveals “the growing list of doubts” inside Downing Street? Well of course, it’s all down to ‘spin’, and spin is acceptable even if somewhat distasteful. Surely the “doubts’ expressed by Powell’s memo reveals the simple fact that the government knew it was lying and that it was more concerned about selling the lie than the fact that it lied.
Indeed, it suggests that perhaps more ‘credible’ lies were needed than the ones used in the final dossier and that was the real problem. After all, the propagandists employed by the government are not there to act as some kind of ‘conscience’ to keep the the government on the straight and narrow. As I have asserted before, it also explains the ‘doubts’ expressed by Dr David Kelly, were more about the crude way the war was being sold, rather than his alleged opposition to the invasion.
Step forward to around March 7 2003, when the public found out that the Niger yellowcake story was indeed a fabrication (even though the government and the civil servants knew it was a fabrication well beforehand), and search in vain for a story by Grice (or almost anyone else in the corporate media) on how it exposed the lies propounded in the dossier.
Where were the headlines in March that “Blair lies in order to justify invasion”? Where indeed? Grice has no fallback that they were hidden under an iceberg. They were there for all to see. Yes, the fakes were reported but as an aside of a larger story that focused not on the Niger fabrication but on Colin Powell’s theatrics at the UN.
Such disingenuous journalism is dangerous. Even the title of Grice’s article reveals how the media puts a spin on the truth when it says that the e-mails and memos paint an “unflattering picture of government”. A far cry from lies but obviously Grice can live with a government that the memos paint as unflattering but not with one that lies. What the Independent’s choice of words reveals is a media bending over backwards not to speak the awful, “sensational” truth.
Assaulted with reams of detail, that reads as if it is composed of meaning and substance, the reality is that of the skill of the wordsmith perverted to purvey a world that simply does not exist, except as a construct of the imagination, where lies are transformed into ‘unflatterisations’ and deceit into ‘doubts’.
Does this process reveal self-censorship at work or the professional elite totally and consciously complicit in the process of peddling disinformation and playing fast and loose with the truth? Regardless, what is important here is that the media, by focusing on the niggling minutiae avoids the central issue even as it sneaks the “sensational” truth into the story, and what? Hoping we won’t notice?